The Great Liberal Depression

Lately, the political Left, such as it is, has been devoting considerable space to a vexing dilemma: Why are we losing so badly and accepting defeat, despite every indication people should be fighting back? From the recent issue of Harper’s magazine to the leftist blog Alternet, it seems many on the Left can’t fathom the reasons for our collective acceptance of failure.

As the populations of Canada and the United States continue to be ruled by casino capitalism, wars without end, and widening economic gaps between rich and everyone else, some of the Left have begun asking why these conditions have not birthed significant forms of anti-authoritarian opposition, or whether such situations historically lead to dramatic social change.

Here at Dissident Voice, journalist Charles Davis’ recent piece on “The Limits of Liberalism” echoed a familiar sense in liberal and progressive quarters:

And that brings me to the recent primary elections, which I believe illustrate a point I have learned many times over since ‘06; namely, that electoral politics is at best a diversion, a tried-and-true means for the political establishment to channel public anger with the status quo in such a way that the status quo is never seriously threatened.

Davis’ realization happened in 2006, but anarchists have understood the malignant nature of states and representative politics for over a century. Davis, like many on the Left now emerging from the haze of corporate mass media indoctrination (especially in the form of the Obama Presidential campaign), provides advice for those looking to break free of statist politics:

Instead of banking on a politician improving our world, my advice? Improve yourself. Be an example to others. Work not on the behalf of a political party, but your community. Put simply, forget the polling booth and head to the soup kitchen. At least then you won’t be complicit in a bloodied, immoral system.

Why is such inspirational advice necessary at this moment? According to psychologist Bruce E. Levine, the Left needs morale-boosting not more information.

The barrage of recent leftist self-examinations began back in December with Levine’s “Are Americans a Broken People? Why We’ve Stopped Fighting Back Against the Forces of Oppression.” The essay, which found some circulation online, asked some basic questions about traditional liberal assumptions about the power of information to enlighten and empower individuals:

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not “set them free” but instead further demoralize them? Has such a demoralization happened in the United States?

Do some totalitarians actually want us to hear how we have been screwed because they know that humiliating passivity in the face of obvious oppression will demoralize us even further?

Levine compares the American public’s docility in the face of increasing tyranny to “abuse syndrome,” in which victims, afraid to leave the abusive relationship, are forced to endure more abuse. Offering such victims more information about the nature of their abusive relationship does not help them change their situation. Instead, argues Levine, the informational pile-on produces greater demoralization:

Perhaps the ‘political genius’ of the Bush-Cheney regime was in their full realization that Americans were so broken that the regime could get away with damn near anything. And the more people did nothing about the boot slamming on their faces, the weaker people became.

What people need are forms of morale boosting, he claims. The
April 2010 edition of Harper’s, the American liberal establishment magazine, contains a similar analysis, this time describing the state of being a subjugated American in terms of the CIA interrogation technique of “learned helplessness,” the application of random and repeated “no touch” torture such that prisoners simply give up.

Under the headline “The Vanishing Liberal,” author Kevin Baker writes:

We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how badly Republican, right-wing policies fail or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.

Baker then explains how this fatalism is contrary to traditional American liberalism and its belief in “human agency.” Baker ends on a note as dramatic and fatalistic as he began:

There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.

Setting aside the laughable notion that the elites of America ever possessed some beneficent posture (part of an idealized liberal past, I suppose), the significance of Baker’s admissions and conclusions should not be overlooked: party politics in America is dead, and (in true anarchist fashion) “the work will have to be done from the ground up.

Italian Autonomist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, in his book Precarious Rhapsody, provides another explanation for the existence of this Great Liberal Depression:  the “psychopathogenic effects” of what he calls semio-capitalism, a “new regime” characterized by “the fusion of media and capital.” He writes:

Economic competition and digital intensification of informatic stimuli, combined together, induce a state of permanent electrocution that flows into a widespread pathology which manifests itself either in the panic syndrome or in attention disorders…. Depression descends on the cognitive worker because his or her own emotional, physical, intellectual system cannot indefinitely support the hyperactivity provoked by the market and by pharmaceuticals.

Berardi believes the new form of capitalism has produced “a psychopathic phenomenon of over-excitation, trembling, panic and finally of a depressive fall.” Berardi’s conclusions resemble Levine’s belief that the oppressed are overwhelmed by the new conditions of capital and media. Berardi writes quite explicitly, “The economic crisis depends for the most part on a circulation of sadness, depression, panic and demotivation.”

Is a moment like ours inevitable in the life of capitalism? “Is it ‘inevitable’ that capitalism will crash and produce the socialist-anarchist revolution?” asks Wayne Price in his March 2010 article for NEFAC. Price believes the current American Depression will continue and will worsen, along with environmental decay and state war-mongering. In response, he expects “an eventual new wave of popular radicalization, combining elements of the 30s and the 60s.”

According to Price, there are three basic narratives of how class struggle consciousness relates to capitalist crisis: the view that capitalism inevitably produces catastrophe and the working class response, or, as Marx and Engels wrote, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers”; the view held by liberals, which argues capitalism is not governed by deterministic laws, and that electoral politics might produce socialism, that “revolution is not needed”; and finally, the view that capitalism tends toward catastrophe, and so revolution, though not inevitable, is necessary to avoid “ruin and destruction.”

Price concludes:

One of these choices (ruin/barbarism/annihilation) will be the outcome if capitalism is given its head…. The other (revolutionary social-anarchism) requires that the working class become aware of the danger, conscious of the possible alternative to disaster, and decides to take the choice of freedom, cooperation, radical democracy, ecological balance, and internationalism…. The issue will be decided in struggle.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for anarchists to intervene in these liberal moments of depression and anxiety? Perhaps anarchists can be the group to transform liberal hopelessness into anarchist class struggle? When liberals admit the only avenue toward freedom, from this dire moment in history, is “from the ground up” and it will “have to be done by us,” what they are really saying is, “Only anarchism makes sense now.”

The next step is to educate liberals and others dispossessed of the current corporate statist order on the benefits of anarchism. This education should begin by dispelling common misunderstandings of anarchism, such as the idea that anarchism is about nothing but spreading chaos. As Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt describe in their recent book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, anarchism has an international legacy of mass class struggle movements. In addition, various strands of anarchism exist and have provided philosophical and tactical forms of resistance against racism, sexism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression.

Surprisingly, and perhaps indicative of the desperation of the current situation, the next step is something on which Charles Davis, Bruce Levine, Kevin Baker, and Wayne Price could all agree: begin building communities from the ground up.

Michael Truscello, Ph.D., is an associate professor in English and General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. Read other articles by Michael.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Gary S. Corseri said on May 25th, 2010 at 10:38am #

    Thank you, Professor. … This is an excellent summation and interpretation of the angst many on the Left are feeling these days.

    I, for one, will take your advice and educate myself more comprehensively on the subject of anarchism–via Schmidt and van der Walt’s book, and others. But, let’s face it: anarchism, as it is generally understood, comprises significant dangers. One long-noted example: the French Revolution, beginning with so much hope and reformist zeal, soon degenerated into the “anarchy” of the rebels devouring their own. We’ve got a “Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war!” scenario where the dictators and tyrants write the final clauses. (One could mention the Russian Revolution, as well, but there’s still so much controversy about that–let’s not open that can of caviar!)

    People are in love with two things: they love order … and they love the lack of it! Everything in it’s place and a place for everything or how can I do anything worthwhile and meaningful … and, none of that, if you don’t mind (and even if you do), give me Liberty or give me Death, what’s new, don’t tell me, I need adventure, change, growth! A problem at this time in the Western-style “democracies” (including, of course, Japan) is that we appear to have neither “order” nor “freedom.” The “demoralization” that Baker and Levine remark may have much less to do with their decried sense of defeat than with sheer confusion. We’re in Gaga-land. Decades of turning traditional values on their head, decades of indoctrination about our “freedoms” and our “democracy” and your sad sack of the hoi polloi can’t help but feel burned out, used up, demoralized, confused, snookered.

    Berardi’s insight makes much sense: this is terra incognita, a fusion of capitalism and media–or capitalism and the electronic melange–and our poor human synapses are fried and frazzled.

    How do we get out of this surreal, nightmarish labyrinth? Some focused anarchism (italicize focused) to take down the old system, now moribund and rotting could certainly change the scenery. And “grounds-up” work to create the new systems–to learn by doing. Then, in E. M. Foster’s wonderful phrase, “Only connect.” Autonomous grounds-up communities connecting to kindred communities and we’ve got a “bubble-up” world in place of the current piss trickling-down world! If we’re going to come through this decade (let alone this century!) we’ll need new thinking, new actions, new forms on many fronts–political, social, economic, cultural. We’re a world in limbo now and in purgatory.

  2. JE said on May 25th, 2010 at 4:37pm #

    Gary I think you need to just plain educate yourself on anarchism because your conception of anarchism is WAY off base and no amount of “defenestration” of simplistic language in favor of two dollar words can obscure the fact that you don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.

  3. mary said on May 26th, 2010 at 1:58am #

    Sharp intake of breath as the pupil sitting at the back of the class insults the master.

  4. Gary S. Corseri said on May 26th, 2010 at 12:11pm #

    Thanks, Mary!

    And, J.E.: au contraire, mon frere! I do have a fucking clue about what I am talking about, but I confess to having no fucking clue about what you are talking about!

    I believe you simply mean “simple,” not “simplistic” above. (The former word might actually strengthen your “argument”–hobbling as it is now.)

    BTW, you might want to read the notes about commenting at the estimable DV website. We do try to refrain from ad-hominem verbiage here (sorry! that means, “personal attacks”). Be assured, I’ll refrain from answering your misplaced barbs in the future. I have better things to do (like clipping my toe nails!).

  5. Wingnut said on May 29th, 2010 at 5:45am #

    Hi gang! Gary, you must have touched a nerve on ol’ JE, huh? Great writers sometimes cause a wind that makes your pee fly back in your face, don’t they JE? When you’re hangin’ with brains and hearts like Mr. Truscello and Mr. Corseri, you’re fartin’ through silk, and you should feel honored that they care about the world’s largest and most oppressive issues AT ALL.

    I liked the word “docility” as used by our author. Because of an “every person/family unto themselves” attitude gained through the use of capitalism’s competitive societal mores, a feeling of powerlessness has overwhelmed a-many. Its very difficult to get a team against an establishment established… when folks feel they have no power and are not having their ideas for a better way… heard or weighed. One could call this a lack of egalitarianism… and its sure to happen when rat-racing survival-of-the-$fittest$ pyramid schemes of inequality and servitude such as capitalism… are the theme of the scene.

    Now, WHY do the docilized… shrug-off disgusting things like capitalism’s Darwinian survival-of-the-$fittest$ inequality and classing? One reason is because of the supposed separation of church and state. Ever heard the widely accepted adage “Don’t take it personal… its just business”? Its EASY to see the wall of separation there, right? Here’s another: “There’s nothing wrong with making a good profit”. And how about “Whatever the market will bear” which has evolved into “Whatever we can get away-with”. Nice, handwashing, co-condoning, blindered scapegoating, yes? And maybe THE most-used hand-wash of all… “its not my job”.

    I ask many, often… “What keeps you from activism, or at least making SOME noise about world problems?” My father’s hand-wash is “You can’t change it… its been going-on for years.” My mother’s is “Its not my job” (a potential ‘do as you’re told’ sheep-type.) Another common answer is “I haven’t got time for that crap. Hell, I’m just trying to find a moment to relax from the continuous grind!” That’s a very common response… and I see their point/predicament.

    When USA kids reach the parental policy reversal from share share share… into fight fight fight at age 18 when they are forced to join the competer’s church (capitalism) or starve… its pretty much the end of the road for freedom, and the beginning of marching and working FOR instead of WITH. After age 18, the kids will be taking orders from new parents… called a “boss”… and its a “join the free marketeers OR ELSE” situation. In my book, that forced religion and policy… and is felony extortion. You/we can’t force kids into the competer’s church… that’s illegal. You/we HAVE TO offer them the cooperator’s church, too (socialism/commune). After all, SOME kids (and adults) are lovers, not fighters. Cooperation is the direct opposite of competition, as far as I can tell. Also, as best I can tell, competition is NOT healthy, and never was.

    Lethargy. Docility. Powerlessness. Fear of saying/doing something stupid. No time. No energy (might mean the same as lethargy). There’s probably 10-20 big-gun heavily-leaned-on excuses and handwashings for not being “active” on world problems/issues. When nation/family/person-unto-self bordering policies happen… it isolates. Take a look at how caring folks can be about their lawns and other “owned” things. They use the “my” word exclusively instead of “the” and “a”. My yard, my dog, my family, my car, my kids, my house, my lunchbreak, my garden, my my my my my. How often do you hear “my government” or “my society” or “my planet”? Hardly ever. Often, if its beyond the yard fence, or not OWNed by a person, its not their problem. Maybe it all started with the heavily-taught childhood line… “YOU just keep your mind on what YOU are doing, and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.” Personal pride, personal hygiene, personal appearance, personal good name… that’s the theme of the eon. There’s little or no mention of planetary pride, hygiene, appearance, and good name.

    A late thought I had involved the buyer’s shoe and the seller’s shoe… an US versus THEM war within ourselves. When viewed from a consumer-level viewpoint, the buyer’s shoe (especially when buying NECESSITIES) is “personal”, isn’t it? We take price tags on survival supplies… as personal… I suspect. And the seller (shoe) of those survival supplies… say “Don’t take those price tags/gouging personal, its just business”. We wear masks, don’t we? Multiple persona. We play roles… hop-scotching back and forth across that separation of church and state, or across yard fences and other borders.

    I think even the powerless-feeling people want to be heard, though. I am definitely seeing some indications of people wanting to “vent”. Don’t ask for much more activism than that from them, though. Too many excuses stand in the way. But for the time being, lets nurture that “being heard”… even for foot-stomping JE and his type. I think we could stand to take notice of even the SLIGHTEST activism… even if its dripping with profanity and untargeted sling-shots. I think almost all activism starts with an anger, and when it matures through the long learning process of self-analysis, it gets its cause more accurately targeted. At first, its knee jerk, and although some already well-know the reason(s) for the anger and emotional reaction, the youngsters don’t, yet. They mis-target their hot-mustard cannons and try to induce vomiting in the wrong areas.

    Wingy rattling on and on, all over the place, as usual. Best regards!

  6. bozh said on May 29th, 2010 at 7:12am #

    Are we this way because we are made this way or were we always, or for the last 100-20k yrs, so?
    I suggest we have been taught to accept wars, exploitation, wife-child beating, lying, abuse of animals-nature, plush life, classes, torture, incarceration, death penalty, to believe in god the wrong way, etcetc.

    By whom? I sugest by priests, sorcerers, visionaries, magicians at first; later, as well as now, by priests and ‘nobles’ [read, please, criminals-gangsters].

    In order to subjugate us just ab totally, they took care to split us asunder into families rather than in extended families or even clans.
    But in US even that wasn’t enough: it split americans into individuals; collective responsibilty had been much abrogated while personal responsibility highly stressed.
    And the whole hell broke loose for ‘aliens’ and some americans! Hey, folks brought up by gangsters, what can we expect? But, of course, hell on earth! tnx

  7. Wingnut said on June 9th, 2010 at 8:38am #

    Hi bozh and readers. Bozh… you seem a bit anxious to blame the problems on some “they”… but… keep in mind that much of the problem is via continuance of “tradition” and various social mores such as the Puritan work-ethic. As my dad says… “it been going on for years”. That is HIS excuse for not fighting for something better.

    One could/needs-to think about participation in organizations (the free marketeers) that allow only ONE type of money. (and also claims competition is healthy.) One could ponder what IS a “job” and is it the forced joining of that single competer’s organization? What is “afford”? Who and what invented price tags? Price tagging survival goods is a tradition, not a necessity. Using economies is a tradition, not a necessity. Having the phenomenon of ownership… existing at all… is a tradition, not a necessity.

    If I were to find some kind of THEY to blame… I’d have to say that US is to blame… for allowing “orders” and monetary discrimination to continue, and continue, and continue. Adages and beliefs such as “that’s life” and “who said life was fair” and “that’s just the way it is” and “you can’t change it” are used by many… to avoid owning up to the disgustingness. And even if own-up happens, those lines/beliefs are used to avoid taking actions to change anything. They/We go shopping or eating instead… more fun.

    This is an excellent subject and I wish more readers would weigh-in on it.

    Be good. Wingy

  8. bozh said on June 9th, 2010 at 9:24am #

    Sorry, u wld need to rephrase what u wrote for me to have some grasp of what u mean or what u want to do ab the situation we are now in.

    But permit me to repeat following: we have been taught as children and adults to accpet own wars, exploitation-belittlement of some people by some people.
    U called it “blaming THEM”.
    But those are ur words. I almost always avoid blaming people; i solely describe what my eyes see!

    I often say that the root evil that befell us on interpersonal and interethnic levels was division of people into a subclass and an overclass.
    The division was perped on us by sorcerers-priests [over possibly millennia] and later priestly-patrician class of people whom i consider the greatest criminal minds we’ve ever had or will ever have.
    I am not anxious ab this; i am deeply saddened by the fact that today the sanest criminal minds rule us.
    In any case- and of necessary and absolutly certain truth- a first cause for what has happened 10-15 k yrs ago and is happening now, must exist.
    Naturally, asocialists wld deny this; while getting personal or pointing out trivial personal faults; real and made up. tnx